The Nature of the Bistro

Bravo Bistro, 4327 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 481-7614. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."
--Alice Through the Looking Glass

Wouldn't it be wonderful if just by naming something we could make it so? My first order of business would be to call my boss Mother Teresa, my father-in-law Mr. Rockefeller and my home the Playboy Mansion.

Humpty Dumpty isn't the only one who believes we can make words mean whatever we want them to mean. Valley restaurateurs surely do.

It seems like every other restaurant these days fancies itself a "bistro." That's because their owners want diners to think they possess the energy, the casual sophistication and the culinary deftness that mark their European counterparts. It's certainly a good marketing ploy. After all, if you had $50 to blow on a Saturday-night dinner for two, where would you go: "Joe's Diner" or "Jacques' Bistro"?

The problem is, as Alice noted, that if words mean whatever we want them to mean, they don't mean anything at all. Fortunately, two of this town's newest bistros, Bravo Bistro and Suzanne's Bistro, take their names seriously. Both give you a taste of the bistro experience.

The proprietors of Bravo Bistro spent some years at Tomaso's before venturing out on their own. They've clearly thought their new enterprise through.

The place looks and feels good. With room for about 50 diners, Bravo Bistro is just the right size, with just the right amount of bustle. One of the partners cooks, the other hosts. He offers a hearty greeting when you enter, checks on how you're doing after you're seated, thanks you for coming when you leave and remembers you when you come back. Up-tempo, finger-snappin' Tony Bennett tunes furnish brisk audio background. Eye-catching paintings of French cafe scenes that line the white brick walls provide colorful visual background. The signs are all promising.

So is most of the Mediterranean-themed fare. The warm pita bread and garlicky hummus spread that greet you make for good immediate nibbling. But it's a mistake not to offer a basket of fresh, crusty French or Italian bread when the food starts arriving. The pita simply doesn't cut it. Pita with antipasto? Pita with smoked salmon? Who wants to dip pita in the white wine sauce that bathes the mussels, the bleu cheese sauce that bathes the polenta or the garlic sauce that bathes the escargots? These sauces cry out for bread, and Bravo Bistro ought to be listening.

Several starters show some flair. Grilled polenta brings two small disks--I wouldn't have minded a third--draped with a hearty Gorgonzola cheese sauce. An appetizer special of black mussels simmered in wine and garlic unleashes a heady combination of aromas. The light escarole soup gently nudges your taste buds. The antipasto for two, however, isn't quite as zesty as it should be. It's not as well put together as it should be, either. The platter features the usual veggies--eggplant, olives, mushrooms, squash, peppers, tomatoes--along with fresh mozzarella. But it needs some Italian meats or seafood, or at least some other cheeses, to justify the $10 tag.

Most of the main dishes sparkle. Osso buco seems to be on almost every menu in town these days--I wouldn't be surprised to see it at a McDrive-through window in the near future. Bravo Bistro's model is first-rate, a man-size veal shank perfectly braised in an aromatic vegetable brown sauce, paired with the traditional saffron rice accompaniment. At $21, it's the most expensive entree here, but you won't feel shortchanged.

I'm also a big fan of the couscous dish, which is served with grilled chicken, veggies, chickpeas and, for a twist, asparagus, all with a delightful ginger tang. It's not what you'd get in North Africa, but what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in flavor. Chicken scarparello is just as fetching: chicken breast and zingy sausage in a pungent lemon garlic sauce, teamed with rice, grilled sweet peppers and veggies.

Pasta fans will be delighted by the tortelloni, a filling portion of half-moon-shaped pasta stuffed with ricotta and perked up by a pesto sauce flecked with pine nuts. Fruitti di mare offers basic bistro-seafood pleasure--big, juicy sea scallops, jumbo shrimp, clams and calamari in a fragrant tomato sauce, served over a bed of linguini in a big bowl.

Oddly enough, the one entree disappointment is trumpeted as a "house specialty." It's the grilled salmon, an unremarkable creature whose honey mustard marinade and balsamic vinaigrette herb sauce required instruments more sophisticated than my tongue to detect.

Our displeasure deepened when we saw that the fish came with the most forlorn-looking scoop of plain white rice you can imagine. When the host stopped by to check on us, my companion complained about it. He eyed the rice for a moment, and agreed with her assessment. "Not too flavorful, huh?" he said. "Let me see what I can do about it." He disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared with a plate of rice sizzled with garlic, peas and pine nuts. Why didn't the chef think of this in the first place? Still, give Bravo Bistro credit for trying to please a disgruntled customer.

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